Us in the US

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on March 18, 2018

How Indians move and shake in America

Indians and Indian-Americans have arrived in full force into America’s living rooms. Raj Shah, a young political star is now the Deputy White House Press Secretary for President Trump. Suave and urbane, he speaks often on national TV on behalf of a chaotic administration. Given the turmoil among Trump’s senior staff, it is entirely possible that Shah could rise higher.

Nikki Haley, the former two-term governor of South Carolina, is a dominant player in Trump’s foreign policy inner circle. As America’s ambassador to the UN, she is rumoured to have the president’s ear. Press reports say she may run for the presidency herself as a female star of the Republican party and help bring women back into the party’s fold.

For four decades, Indians have quietly gained America’s respect by rising in the hallways of universities, hospitals and offices, competing intellectually with the best and brightest that America offers. Skilled in small business, the Indian diaspora has flourished largely out of sight — owning motels, commercial real estate, convenience stores, restaurant franchises and fuel stations. But it has only been recently that Indians are being seen and heard in the public square.

In part because of their grooming in the liberal bastions of coastal America, Indians are much more aligned with the Democratic left. Kamala Harris, the daughter of a famous Chennai cancer researcher, is the freshman senator from California, and a future presidential candidate in the Obama mould. Pramila Jayapal, a congressional representative from Washington state is well-connected to senior leaders including Bernie Sanders and Obama. Suraj Patel, a Stanford graduate, is running in New York’s 12th congressional district. Goutam Jois, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is running in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional district.

There are also prominent Obama alumni, such as Neera Tanden, Preet Bharara, Arun Chaudhary and Vanita Gupta, who are biding their time to return to power, helping to form what the right-wing media calls the Obama deep state. Each uses a disdain for Trump to win airtime on media outlets hungry for never-Trump opinions.

And in the fourth estate, conservatives such as Ramesh Ponnuru and Dinesh D’Souza, and liberal journalists such as Fareed Zakaria and Hari Sreenivasan are omni-present both in print and on TV.

Even in local elections Indians are making a mark, running for state offices, city government representative positions and local school board places. Indians are prominent in grassroots activism as well. Saru Jayaraman advocates for restaurant workers and is a frequent TV personality. Rashi Bhatnagar is mobilising fellow H-1B spouses to argue for a right to work at a time when nearly half the country nurses anti-immigrant feelings.

And unexpectedly, there have been misses. Google’s Sundar Pichai has clumsily entered America’s culture wars when he fired an American engineer for expressing views on an internal message board which Pichai called “harmful gender stereotypes”. Some Indians at prestigious institutions like the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, are fighting charges of sexual harassment in the #MeToo environment. In Dallas two years ago, Atul and Jay Nanda were sentenced to 87 months in federal prison for committing visa fraud.

To see Indians prominently active in the public square is a seminal moment and a turning point in America’s history. The wealthy and accomplished Indian diaspora has truly arrived.

The writer is MD, Rao Advisors LLC

Published on March 18, 2018

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